Over the past 7 years of the Protected Innocence Challenge, states have made substantial progress – 47 states have raised their grade, and while the majority of states were failing in 2011, there are no longer any states with a failing grade and 30 states now have an “A” or “B” grade. By closing gaps in state laws, this progress has also shown a light on where the most substantial gaps remain – unfortunately, those gaps primarily impact protections for child victims, specifically, laws that allow a child sex trafficking victim to be criminalized for their own victimization.
Since the beginning of 2017, fifteen states have sought to pass laws to prohibit the criminalization of youth survivors of sex trafficking for prostitution and other offenses. Despite a growing consensus that children cannot be “prostitutes,” only four of the fifteen states have been successful in changing their laws. In fact, a majority of states still allow children to be arrested, detained, and prosecuted for prostitution, despite conflicting federal and state law that deems such children victims of child sex trafficking.
During this legislative session alone, twelve states introduced legislation to create new or strengthen existing protections for youth survivors of sex trafficking. By trying to stop the prosecution of minors for prostitution, these states embarked on a multi-state effort to demand protection, not punishment for child victims. Despite strong support among survivors, service providers, and anti-child sex trafficking stakeholders, all 12 bills have been unsuccessful so far.
In order to address the legal conflicts and mobilize states to enact non-criminalization laws that adequately protect and provide comprehensive services for survivors of child sex trafficking, Shared Hope International is launching the Stop the InJuSTice campaign. Complementing the campaign launch, Shared Hope’s Center for Justice and Advocacy will release a video and e-learning training series to promote a better understanding of defining, implementing and developing a JuST (Juvenile Sex Trafficking) Response. These resources bring together the voices of survivors, service providers and advocates from around the country to weigh in on this issue.
Why do states face challenges in making progress?
Developing and providing a specialized, non-punitive response to juvenile sex trafficking victims remains a complex challenge for most states. Because of this, the passage of non-criminalization legislation has plateaued over the last two years. Throughout the course of providing technical assistance to stakeholders and state policymakers, Shared Hope’s Center for Justice and Advocacy has identified three common challenges in adopting and implementing protective responses for youth survivors:
- A lingering misconception that some minors can be “prostitutes.” Despite laws in all 50 states and D.C. that recognize the sale and purchase of minors for sex as a form of human trafficking, and thus the minor a victim of child sex trafficking, many people believe that some children can willingly and consensually engage in commercial sex. Because of this, several states have been reluctant to pass non-criminalization laws so that prosecutors and law enforcement can retain discretion in determining which children are deserving of punishment instead of services. This misperception is frequently fueled by a widespread misunderstanding of sex trafficking victimization and the ways in which resulting or underlying trauma can present in youth survivors.
- A lack of alternative and appropriate placement options and services. All states, including those that have passed non-criminalization laws, are faced with the challenge of developing and utilizing safe and appropriate placement options for youth survivors. With far more survivors than available therapeutic homes or facilities, states may depend on detention centers to hold victims until alternative placements are identified, if ever. Additionally, some argue that detention facilities remain the safest placement option for survivors, despite evidence that placement in such facilities can be traumatizing and not conducive to healing.
- Diverging opinions regarding the best way to engage youth survivors in long-term services. Some stakeholders argue that, without the threat of charges or discipline for non-compliance, many minors are unwilling to engage in their service plan or make decisions that are in their best interests. While some youth survivors present run risks and may not consistently participate in services, this oftentimes reflects underlying trauma that needs to be addressed outside of a punitive system. A non-punitive approach allows minors to engage in the development of their own individualized service plan, free of timelines or coercive delinquency charges, exhibit an increased ability to trust their service team, regain confidence and a sense of control, and heal on their own timeline.
Additionally, some law enforcement and prosecutors oppose removing criminal liability for youth survivors due to the belief that charging a survivor is an effective strategy in getting the minor to flip and testify against his or her exploiter. This strategy is detrimental and treats the minor as a prosecutorial pawn; it also goes against the evidence that a survivor’s cooperation in an investigation actually improves when the survivor, instead of being criminalized, is able to access services and build rapport with law enforcement and prosecutors.
The consequence of inaction
Arresting, detaining, and prosecuting minors for prostitution is inherently unjust and creates a legal contradiction—state law recognizes the minor as a crime victim yet simultaneously punishes the child for the same conduct that creates their victim status.
The criminal justice and delinquency systems are not designed to appropriately respond to juvenile sex trafficking victims. Treating child victims of sexual exploitation as criminals has serious long-term consequences. The process of being arrested, detained and prosecuted oftentimes creates an entirely new traumatic experience in the child’s life. It can strengthen a child’s attachment to their trafficker, while simultaneously fueling distrust in the systems that are there to serve the child. Delinquency charges can prevent the youth survivor from forming healthy and trusting relationships with persons in positions of authority who can assist and support the minor. Additionally, funneling youth survivors through the juvenile justice system can impair access to vital holistic support and care to address the trauma that accompanies and oftentimes precedes the exploitation. Charging exploited youth with prostitution and other offenses committed as a direct result of being trafficked has a long-term impact on their lives. Minors with juvenile records can be disqualified for employment and higher education opportunities, can be suspended or expelled from school, and can lose access to safe and affordable housing.
Take action and join the mission!
Shared Hope International is committed to ending the practice of criminalizing juvenile survivors for their trafficking victimization. To mobilize change, the Center for Justice and Advocacy is launching Stop the InJuSTice, a campaign to seek advancements in both policy and practice. Here’s how you can get involved!
- Sign up for our Thunderclap! To kick off the Campaign, on June 22nd we will be releasing our new video, “Stopping the InJuSTice” on our campaign page and via Thunderclap. This new video amplifies both the voices of youth survivors who have experienced criminalization for their trafficking victimization and solutions for change. Sign up for the Thunderclap to automatically share this important message and the new video when it is released on June 22!
- Take our training On June 22 we will also release Just Response, a free webinar training program to advance non-punitive, protective responses for youth survivors.